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Does Anyone Want To Win The Title This Season?

Arsenal 2 – 3 Tottenham Hotspur

1 – 0 Nasri (9)
2 – 0 Chamakh (27)
2 – 1 Bale (50)
2 – 2 van der Vaart (68 pen)
2 – 3 Kaboul (86)

A home defeat to Tottenham is never a pleaseant occurrence; one where an abject second half performance was inexplicably at odds with the impressive nature of the previous forty five minutes is sickening. It is one  which has seen some sections of the support stoop so low with personal abuse that they have not scraped the bottom of the barrel, they ploughed through and continued unabated to the bowels of the earth.

Where the defeat cuts deepest into the soul that it was entirely avoidable. The strongest of foundations had been built for victory, dominating the first half to render the visitors entirely impotent. The second saw talented players capitulate through their own mistakes, architects of their own downfall leaving the manager furious and bewildered in equal measure.

The defeat rests ultimately on his shoulders for that is where the buck stops but each member of the squad must look at themselves this morning and ask if they have the mental strength to cross the rubicon, to breach the citadel walls of title winners, leaving the land of potential behind them.

Despite this, the team still remains two points from the summit. Chelsea’s defeat at Birmingham means that they rule the roost by that margin from Arsenal, goal difference from a distinctly ordinary Manchester United side. Arsenal cannot continue to rely on the largesse of their rivals; at some point they must stand up and make the victories achieved on their travels count for exactly that rather than making up for their home travails.

It was all so needless. Spurs had been swept aside in the opening half. Half chances had been traded before Fabregas lofted a pass over the top of the visitors’ defence; Samir Nasri chased it down but Gomes came to make the ball his and failed, hesitating instead of being brave to collect. The Frenchman nicked the ball past him and from the tightest of angles, dribbled the ball over the line with enough power to tantalise the chasing defence but sufficient to tease the pursuers into the net as well.

Pressure mounted on the Tottenham goal, most notably when Fabregas wriggled free and shot past the far post. The lead was doubled as Tottenham pressed on their left, Sagna cleared the cross to Fabregas who swept the ball wide to Arshavin, the Russian’s cross glanced into the net by Chamakh’s boot. Two-nil, complete control assumed. The Moroccan spurned two opportunities before the interval but nothing that had been seen gave any indication of the mania to follow.

Within five minutes, Tottenham had their foothold as Bale sprinted onto Defoe’s flick, beating Fabianski with a shot across the goalkeeper. Even so, fifteen minutes of stability would have taken some of the sting from the moment. It never happened.

Modric should have equalised before Song was deemed to have fouled him with half of the second period played. The freekick was curled at the wall by van der Vaart, Fabregas lifted his own and Chamakh’s arm to block the ball at above head height. A penalty was awarded; van der Vaart converted. This picture (thanks to Ole for the link) highlights the folly clearly. Had the ball struck either, play would have stopped if the power was deemed that sufficient. Absolute lunacy, the softest and most foolish of penalties to concede.

Arsenal came back to life from the crevice of despair. Fabregas was offside as he played the ball back to Squillaci, the defender still buried the chance. The Spaniard would also go close with a volley moments later before Gomes turned his effort away with fifteen minutes left. The most culpable of misses though fell once more to Laurent Koscielny. Having incomprehensibly headed over the bar in the opening minutes at Stamford Bridge, he missed a glorious chance to deflate the visitors, heading over from close range.

It was the first of two costly late interventions. With six minutes remaining, he felled Bale. The resultant free kick found Kaboul poorly marked, his flicked header gave Tottenham their first victory at The Emirates, only their second at Arsenal in the Premier League.

For Wenger, it is a tough week ahead.  He is being criticised for the mental failings of the players in this match. There was enough experience on the pitch for those in red and white to have closed out the match. Indeed, having shown that calmness at Everton with a two-goal advantage sealed inside 48 minutes, the capitulation is staggering. They have this knowledge yet no-one stood sufficiently tall to bring the group to heel. That was a failing of all, not just the captain. Yet Fabregas should have done that but did not.

Hindsight is a wonderful gift but Wenger made an error in playing Koscielny. The defence did not need changing. Djourou had played well in the previous two games, his understanding with Squillaci had handled the Wolves and Everton frontlines well. Denilson for Wilshere was understandable, the Brazilian having played at Goodison Park impressively as a second half substitute.

It is however not a time for individual finger-pointing. The burden of the defeat rests squarely on the shoulders of all. Damaging as it was, fatal it was not. However the slovenliness of recent home form has to be removed. Winning at home is how title winning sides build their success. Defeats such as those already suffered have been costly in that a potential seven point lead at the top had they all been won, has not materialised.

Two tough away games ahead this week; the players have to respond meaningfully, winning both with good performances. Two victories in Braga and at Villa Park bring December into view, a month for driving forward. At this particular moment in time, that is by no means certain.

’til Tomorrow.

Spurs Preview: More Than Local Pride At Stake

Tottenham arrive at The Emirates this lunchtime, the opposition more determined than most to try and rain on Arsenal’s parade and stop their ascendancy to the summit of the Premier League, even if that top position may only be held for a few hours.

The recent internationals have not been as costly as in the past. Jack Wilshere was the only real scare but Arsene noted that the youngster had recovered and passed a fitness test yesterday. It means that the only absentees are Vermaelen, Almunia and Diaby. Bendtner and van Persie are likely to be on the bench based on Wenger’s comments about them being nearly ready for the starting line-up and whilst he might not have said it, he has a very good idea of whom he will choose plus the tactics employed. Which is more than can be said for ‘Appy ‘Arry.

Much has been made in recent days about the new toughness about Arsenal. Wenger observed,

I take that as a compliment because before people felt they could do that [be physical]. I feel it’s part of maturing, becoming a man. Unfortunately it goes down with the worst Fair Play record and we have to change that but it shows we are more committed.

Commitment is one thing which you expect in this match and Spurs will no doubt seek to kick anything that moves, attempting to provoke a reaction from Fabregas and Wilshere most notably. The former has been frustrated with his form being affected by his fitness and the latter, the exuberance of youth when his touch lets him.

Fabregas’ goal at Everton will have done wonders for him in that respect, a sign that things are beginning to come back into shape. For Wilshere though, recent Arsenal outings have seen a plateau, culminating in his half-time substitution at Goodison Park. Wenger commented afterwards that he felt Wilshere was tired and he will not have been disappointed at the youngster missing out on Wednesday night.

Indeed, the question is whether or not today is a good day for Jack to be dropped to the bench. Arsenal has to contend with the world’s greatest player in Gareth Bale – it’s true because the media all tell us so – and putting Walcott on the right hand side of attack will cause some hesitancy in the Welshman’s forward progress, causing him to be more aware of where Theo is.

Walcott has in the eyes of neutral observers, a point to prove. As is the norm, he was not at his best for England. The usual withering comments have been made not once noting that Capello and the squad singularly fail to play to Walcott’s strengths. He is hampered by the fact that few of the England squad know that lumping a ball over fifty yards into space is not a pass; it is a fifty yard hoof, exacerbated when they expect Walcott to jump, win the header and then chase the ball. Bale beware; Arsenal know his strengths.

The one thing which might save Wilshere’s place is Andrey Arshavin. Wenger commented that he often seems a spent force returning from international duty and no doubt that the Russian will have been assessed by the Arsenal staff regarding his fitness. Part of that was psychology on the manager’s part, as was his praise for Arshavin prior to last week’s away fixtures. He got the desired results.

A win is essential today, to put doubts in Chelsea minds and to put belief in Arsenal hearts. Even if they return to the top following a win at Birmingham, Chelsea will know that the pressure is on ahead of a tough set of fixtures leading up to Christmas. Arsenal in touch or ahead pose a serious threat to their title ambitions; what better way than to win today and go top?

The line-up I would start with is:

Fabianski; Sagna, Squillaci, Djourou, Clichy; Fabregas, Song, Nasri; Walcott, Chamakh, Arshavin

No place for the returning Koscielny. Johan Djourou has done well in his absence and the back four looked settled at Everton – why change it, especially with two players who seem to be at the same level. It sends a powerful message as well that places in the team cannot be taken for granted with those coming into the side aware that good performances are rewarded.

And fourteen good performances are needed today from the Arsenal team that plays during the ninety minutes. Tottenham has lost at Bolton, Manchester United and West Ham, only victorious at Fulham and Stoke on their travels. Not a good record for a team with Champions League aspirations and one that Arsenal should look to keep at it’s poor record.

Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it. ’til Tomorrow.

Tottenham Crushed By The Wheels Of Arsenal Industry

Carling Cup 3rd Round
Tottenham Hotspur 1 – 4 Arsenal

0 – 1 Lansbury (15)
1 – 1 Keane (49)
1 – 2 Nasri (91 pen)
1 – 3 Nasri (95 pen)
1 – 4 Arshavin (105)

A team which highlighted the depth of Arsenal’s squad and their current injury woes, wiped the memory of the 5 – 1 debacle in this competition three seasons ago.  Jack Wilshere dominated the midfield as Arsenal took the breath from the  tie, consigned it to the footballing mortuary, only for poor officiating to give it the kiss of life before eventually killing off the futile Tottenham resistance in extra time.

The visitors were utterly dominant, save from a fifteen minute spell in the second half. For decades, Tottenham prided themselves on the memories of Bill Nicholson and Arthur Rowe, push and run their mantra, playing football ‘the proper way’. Last night they received an object lesson in how football really should be played, chasing shadows and spending considerable amounts of time without possession.

Wenger surprised with a strong line-up which despite showing eight changes from the weekend, would still be more than a match for most of the Premier League. Eschewing his usual policy of fielding reserves and youth with a smattering of experience, Wenger noted post-match that it was important to maintain the momentum of the early season. So he fielded a team which was reserves and youth with a smattering of experience.

It was little surprise when Henri Lansbury broke the deadlock before the quarter hour mark passed. Arsenal’s midfield were dominant, neat crisp passes had stretched the Tottenham defence and the pressure was beginning to show, not just on their manager’s face. Eboue played the ball wide, despite slipping the pass was accurate, where Gibbs and Nasri’s neat interchange found Wilshere on the left, rifling a cross into the path of the unmarked Lansbury, sliding in to break his Arsenal duck and allow the home fans a clear view of the first of four Arsenal goals in front of them and the gap between the two clubs widening.

Chances were exchanged, Bentley would miss when scoring seemed an easier option, a feat he repeated in extra time, proving just how much of a meal he has dined out on with one goal. Gibbs was wrongly adjudged offside as the Tottenham defence were carved open, not the first nor sadly the last, decision the linesman would get wrong. Early in the second half, those errors would prove costly for Arsenal.

Djourou stepped up and played Keane offside, quite clearly to everyone except the linesman who carried his nightmare first half into the second. The Irishman needed little invitation to shoot but even he would have expected a stronger hand from Fabianski, the deflection too weak to push it wide. The Pole did not have that much to do during the course of the evening, making some good stops – solid with Bentley’s free kick, quick to react to Keane following Nasri’s goalline clearance. But he did not change anyone’s mind either, seemingly not Wenger’s at least, on a day when his compatriot’s toys went hurtling out of his pram.

Keane would later be flagged offside as he hit the post, a tighter decision than the goal yet the official was able to get that right, highlighting the infuriating inconsistencies of officials. Denilson and Eboue would both go close as Arsenal re-asserted themselves whilst Koscielny and Djourou closed down Pavlyuchenko and Keane. The game’s inexorable march into extra time could not be halted but by the interval, it would be over.

Nasri tumbled under the slightest of tugs – nothing wrong with that as the Tottenham defender impeded his run onto Arshavin’s pass. The Frenchman sent Michael Stipe the wrong way. He would repeat the feat a few minutes later as Chamakh tumbled under another shirt pull. To seal the victory, Arshavin and Denilson took a quick free kick following the Russian’s tumble, a rifling shot into the bottom corner compounding Redknapp’s despair at the events of the evening.

Rightly, Jack Wilshere is finding praise heaped on his young shoulders. He passed every examination, positionally, passing and tactically. Crucially, his temperament was tested as Tottenham’s midfield rotated their fouling of the youngsters; Wilshere to his credit resisted the temptation to rise to the bait. Partnering Wilshere, Lansbury looked solid although unsurprisingly tired towards the end. In a team such as the one fielded last night, he would have learned more than possible with the usual Carling Cup team.

Elsewhere, Keiran Gibbs enhanced his reputation by shackling Aaron Lennon in the second half. Prior to that, Gibbs added attacking sensibilities to his armoury, providing a consistent outlet on the left. Gael Clichy will feel some sorrow that the youngster may have broken the second metatarsal but possibly some inward relief that the real threat to his position has found his progress temporarily halted. Laurent Kosicelny once more was outstanding and is looking every inch another Wenger gem.

As was pointed out to me recently by a Tottenham fan; the 5 – 1 result is the only thing the record books show, not that it was a weakened Arsenal team who provided the opposition. Frighteningly for them, a weakened Arsenal team steamrollered into the next round of the Carling Cup.

‘Til Tomorrow.

Title Dream Ends With A Whimper

Tottenham Hotspur 2 – 1 Arsenal

1 – 0 Rose (9)
2 – 0 Bale (47)
2 – 1 Bendtner (85)

The title dream for another season ended last night at White Hart Lane, mathematically still possible but realistically it is over. Substantial possession, better statistical analysis count for nothing if the end product is not there, a point emphasised by Arsene as the first half failing. A night of bitter consolation, Robin van Persie’s return to the season showing what might have been had the Dutchman not been injured in a meaningless international friendly.

As one key player displayed his skills, the defensive qualities of Thomas Vermaelen are going to be sorely missed, his withdrawal leaves Wenger with the pairing of Campbell and Silvestre for the remaining matches this season. We know that Arsenal suffer more injuries than others; we also suffer more injuries to key players than anyone else.

It was a match that turned almost from kick-off. Sol Campbell almost silenced the neanderthals before the second minute had passed, his kneed effort from an early corner stopped on the line. Within eight minutes, it was an opportunity gone that Arsenal would regret. Almunia punched a corner and a good distance was achieved but the ball fell relatively central on the pitch. Rose’s shot was described by Arsene as ‘one in a million’ and it flew into the net.

It is a bittersweet goal to analyse, testing the line between admiration and criticism. Rose showed good technique to volley and promptly contributed nothing for the remainder of the first half, substituted at half time. If you are going to make one contribution in a match, make it telling.

Almunia was at fault on two counts; electing to punch in the first place, he arrived ahead of any other player and was not under such pressure that the cross could not be caught and secondly, his recovery to get back in position was not as quick as it should have been. Whilst the unexpected nature of the shot would have taken him by surprise, anticipation is key goalkeeping attribute and the unexpected should be expected.

The remainder of the half was played largely at Arsenal’s control yet clear opportunities were not plentiful. In fact beyond a Bendtner header midway through the first forty-five minutes, I am struggling to remember a clear chance which was created. This was the fundamental problem with last night’s performance; a lot of endeavour without the incisive passing required. The absence of Cesc was crucial last night, the Spaniard’s guile sorely missed.

Spurs doubled their advantage with the second half barely under way, the goal a comedy of defending errors. Bale was allowed to stroll unchecked across the Arsenal penalty area, received the pass and duly scored. It is hard to know where to begin with the errors. Silvestre failed to keep tabs on Bale, Clichy looking across the line should have reacted quicker when he saw Bale unmarked. The offside trap failed to be sprung because Sagna failed to keep in line with the other defenders. Who is at fault? All of them.

Walcott’s introduction for Sagna saw Eboue drop to right back. It is hard to say if Walcott was solely the catalyst for the increased threat or whether it was more urgency in the performance, required to retrieve the deficit. Within minutes, Walcott found Bendtner whose shot went across the goal unchecked.

van Persie’s introduction with twenty minutes go was definitely a catalyst for more purposeful attacking. Gomes has been a much-maligned goalkeeper; last night he chose to have the final quarter of his life. Twice he denied van Persie, a volley and freekick. Campbell saw a header turned onto the bar by the goalkeeper whilst Rosicky beat him only to see his shot miss the the far post.

The goal finally came. van Persie fed Walcott on the right and his cross was met by Bendtner, slotting home into an empty net. Yet the equaliser would not come, van Persie forced another save from Gomes but Tottenham held out.

Overall, it was a game that Arsenal did not deserve to lose but for an hour or so, they created precious few chances and can scarcely claim with any validity, that they deserved the win that was needed. The title challenge is over in all but name. Chelsea will win the title this season, a silver lining I suppose is that it stops Manchester United winning four in a row.

Of more concern is where Arsenal go from here. Back to winning ways at Wigan is the immediate requirement. Second place is the obvious target, it would be a tangible improvement on last season. The Mancunian derby this weekend offers the chance to leapfrog  United should they lose.

Post match, Arsene commented:

I would not like to go into any individual criticism tonight. We lost a game we couldn’t afford to lose in the title race and that shows that we are not mature enough because if you want to win the League, this kind of game you cannot lose.

It is apparent that he was disappointed with some performances but his options are limited. There is a strong case for giving Bartley his Premier League debut on Sunday or perhaps moving Sagna into the centre of the defence alongside Campbell. Silvestre will probably not be at the club next season and we need to start planning for the coming seasons, ensuring that our fifth choice centre back is going to have at least some experience. van Persie will no doubt be on the bench and I fail to see any rationale in rushing him back, only to have his hamstring or something tweak through playing too soon.

The disappointment of the evening is blurring the edges of some performances. Campbell, Clichy and Sagna defended well last night, the second goal aside for the latter duo. Bendtner, I thought, worked hard and got his deserved reward with a goal. van Persie adds the cutting edge to the attack and with him supporting – or a player of his ilk – Bendtner will score a substantial number of goals in a season.

Rosicky prompted well but has a tendency to follow Alex Hleb at times and look for a pass when perhaps taking the chance to shoot might provide reward. Confidence is a major factor in football. Flitting in and out of the side perhaps affects this but as with his performance in the Camp Nou, that little bit extra is required from an experienced international.

Nasri and Diaby were equally disappointing; neither took the game by the scruff of the neck as they had to in Cesc’s absence. Both are capable of far better performances than last night and both need to become more consistent.

It was a shattering evening. Chelsea might lose at Tottenham this weekend and they might lose at Liverpool but to expect them to do so by sufficient margins to enable the goal difference gap to be overcome is a step too far as it is hard to see how they will drop points at home to Stoke and Wigan.

’til Tomorrow.

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